Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother, working on her Master’s Thesis and teaching English as a Second Language in Oxford. Her mother, Sally, has decided to write down the story of her experiences during WW2 and give them to Ruth. This is when Ruth discovers that the woman she grew up with was actually Eva Delectorskaya – a Russian who moved to Paris and was recruited to be a spy for England in 1939 after her brother was found dead. The problem is, Eva is certain that her story didn’t end there, and now she feels its time for her last job. But without her daughter Ruth’s help, her mission can’t be accomplished. This is the story of William Boyd’s novel Restless.
I’m not a spy thriller type of person, but this book can’t really be classified totally in that genre. Boyd’s novel is more a psychological investigation into deception and self-discovery than a real spy novel. The action takes place over the unusually hot summer of 1976, while Eva’s story takes place over 35 years prior to that. This gives us two stories here – Eva’s past, and Ruth’s present. As the story progresses, things within these women’s lives also heat up. One of Ruth’s students professes his affection for her, while she ends up with house-guests that might be running from trouble abroad. Sal’s actions seem to become erratic while at the same time she reveals the carefully planned out steps she took to go from being Eva to the mother and grandmother she is today. Finding out that your mother has lived her life as a lie, certainly can be an eye-opening experience. This makes Ruth begin to wonder about her relationship with her mother, as well as how her own life is progressing. Finally, Boyd also uses the upsurge of protests against the Shah of Iran that took place at that time to remind us that what we thought then, is far different from what we know now. This last element is basically the main theme of this book – an analysis of the past as a means for action in the present.
While all this seems complex, especially for a novel that only runs 325 pages, Boyd’s prose actually has a very calm feel to it. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that this was the most evenly written book I’d ever read. The prose is carefully written in a “matter of fact” fashion, that feels well balanced, but with almost with no emotion at all. This, of course, lends itself to the mystery feeling of the book and is a good counterpoint to the mixture of feelings that both women experience as their stories progress. In order to tell both these stories, the point of view here shifts between Ruth and her life, and Sal’s story of Eva, through alternate chapters. This is a tried-and-true literary mechanic that lends itself perfectly to such parallel stories, and allows two voices to run consecutively throughout the book. Of course, this is usually done using two first person accounts, but Boyd has opted to use mostly third person in both stories. Again, this lends another air of detachment here, while also allowing us to observe these women’s inner worlds as well as their physical actions. That Boyd actually gets into the hearts and minds of these two women is his way of attaching intimacy to a usually impersonal point of view.
All the more remarkable here is that Boyd – being a man – has been so very able to portray two women. That’s not often the case, and most writers are usually better at writing characters of their own sex. However, you don’t actually get to feel very close to either of these women, and it isn’t like you’ll have a terribly clear picture in your mind as to what they look like. Still, Boyd has managed even without that to make us feel real empathy for these characters, which isn’t all that easy to do. Moreover, the character development here can only be called graceful. It’s as if things happen here almost in slow motion, and yet the ramifications of each step along the way are ones that could easily snowball out of control.
I also have to say that I truly liked how this book ended. While not all the loose ends were tied up neatly, there certainly was a feeling of conclusion. Yes, we are left with certain questions in our minds, but none of them are terribly important ones, so we don’t feel cheated when we turn the last page. We also get the feeling that these women’s lives will continue on after this story, although never the same as before. That’s what I look for in a book – one where the characters drive the story and we feel that they are real, flesh and blood.
I’m sure you can tell from all this that I think William Boyd’s Restless is simply a wonderful book. The characters are beautifully drawn, with an eye towards revealing just enough at just the right pace to keep our interest. The plot is deceptively simple, while layered with psychological and emotional issues. Boyd also uses parallels and metaphor to point up certain internal aspects of these women’s tales, without getting overly dramatic. This isn’t a fast paced spy novel, but it never lags and you’ll find yourself wanting to know what’s going to happen on the next page. Bottom line: this is a very interesting story and Boyd writes it with total aplomb. I’ll give it a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it.
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